Project Brazen (00:00):
Please note, this episode contains references to war and violence. Please take care as you listen. Tariq stood outside the Abbey Gate of Kabul’s airport and hoisted his four-year-old son, Sultan, onto his shoulders. It was safer that way. A child so tiny could easily be injured by the crowd. Tariq had never seen so many people in his life, thousands of Afghans mass outside the gate, desperate to get through the checkpoints and on a flight out of the country. It was days before August 31st, the date the US had promised to withdraw all troops from Kabul. The window to leave was closing.
Tariq and his wife had tried to enter the airport earlier that week, but they hadn’t made it past the Taliban fighters who controlled the gate, even with documents showing that Tariq had been conditionally approved for a special immigrant visa related to his work, even with proof that their son had been born in America and was a US citizen. Tariq and his wife had told Sultan, their son, they were going to Turkey, where they’d go to a waterpark and zoo. The kid loved animals and was so excited about the trip, he cried when they didn’t make it into the airport. He thought that his holiday had been canceled, not that they were trying to flee their homeland.
Tariq stepped towards the crowd with Sultan perched high above him. His wife followed closely behind with their seven-month-old baby. They battled their way towards the Taliban guards. Tariq shouted that they were US citizens even though he and his wife weren’t. Suddenly, he felt a hot, heavy blow sting his shoulder. A Taliban fighter had smacked him with a thick, black cable. His son screamed. Tariq was shocked. He knew they were brutal, but he couldn’t believe they would do this in front of a child. Tariq turned to his wife and told her, “Go back, we’re leaving.”
If I have to get in like I have to sacrifice my kids, they are too little and they’re already scared, so we turned back to home.
From Project Brazen and PRX, this is Kabul Falling. I’m your host, Nelufar Hedayat. This is episode 4, The Explosion. The Taliban had declared amnesty for government workers across Afghanistan and had even urged women to join its government. They promised to respect the rights of women and minorities according to, quote, “Afghan norms and Islamic values,” unquote, but many did not feel encouraged by their words. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans had already left their homes to seek refuge elsewhere. Thousands more were still trying to get out.
The Taliban drawing what it’s calling a red line, saying it will not accept extending the deadline for the US to get out of the country.
It became painfully clear that the plan for the American withdrawal was largely nonexistent. Many Afghans trying to evacuate had the right visas and paperwork. Some had been assisting the US for years. But with the chaos at the airport, they were unable to leave.
Tariq and his family made it through the crowd and back to their taxi. His shoulder ached where the cable had whipped him. His son wouldn’t stop crying. Tariq pulled out his phone and searched for a cartoon to calm him down.
Sound of Sonic (04:03):
Speaker 2 (04:05):
I bought him Sonic Hedgehog, the first one. I searched on YouTube and bought him that. He started watching, then he stopped crying.
Tariq and his wife headed home, feeling deflated. They were desperate to get out of Afghanistan, but they weren’t willing to put their kids in danger. Tariq’s former boss, Jake Cusack, who is based in London, had offered to help them get into the airport. Tariq had sent him the family’s details, but so far, Jake hadn’t given them a concrete plan. Tariq texted Jake to give him an update on the family’s latest attempt. Not long after, Jake had a tip. If Tariq could get to one of the airport’s military gates as soon as possible, there was a chance he and his family could get out of Kabul. “Go now, word will spread, and people will head there,” Jake wrote. “I think chances of success are only 50/50. They said US citizens only, but I will send your information and hope for the best if you want to try,” he continued. Tariq knew Jake was a careful person. He wouldn’t tell him to do anything reckless, so he and his wife didn’t waste any time.
I put all my faith on Jake, and I knew if he got me until here, I will be inside.
Tariq and his family headed back to the airport full of renewed hope. Meanwhile Abdul, a translator from Kandahar, was feeling desperate. He had spent the whole day trying to get into the airport. He’d stood knee-deep in sewage in a ditch outside, pleading his case to US soldiers. Two of his children had been injured in the crowd. They’d driven home as Taliban fighters fired shots in the air.
That same day, at night, when I ate my dinner, I prayed, and then I start to go to sleep. When I was about to lay down on my bed, a message came on my WhatsApp.
It was his friend and CIA colleague, Phil.
Phil said, “I want you guys to move to Kabul airport right now.”
But Abdul and his wife were nervous.
It’s nighttime, the Taliban are stopping people on the way to Kabul airport and investigating from them and then harassing them and sometimes they are beating them. So with me, it’s my family, especially the ladies.
But Phil assured Abdul he’d found a way in, and this was their best chance of getting through. Abdul rallied his family, his wife and their four children, and his cousin and his wife and their kids.
They are exhausted and they were hesitant to go. And I said, “No, you have to go, because these are the few days we have to do something. Otherwise, then don’t blame me. I’m trying my best.”
Tariq and his family arrived at the airport. It was now the third time they’d tried to get in. They crossed one Taliban checkpoint easily, then another. It couldn’t have been further from his experience earlier that day. Tariq texted Jake with an update. “The Taliban are behaving nicely,” he said, “Much better than those on the other gates.” They got into the back of a green Ford pickup truck with a Taliban fighter at the wheel. There were about 10 of these trucks, carrying around 100 Afghans in total. The Taliban was supposed to take them to a meeting point where US soldiers would collect them and bring them to the plane, but instead, they drove them around the airport and dropped them off in a dark, empty yard.
They opened the gate and told us to go and sit there. The people will come and pick you up.” So we sit there. It was like completely dark, no lights, nothing. And some people were trying to walk on those areas in the others are calling them like, “Don’t walk, there might be mines. It’ll explode.”
It was almost 11:00 PM. The heat had been brutal during the day, but now it was freezing. Tariq and his wife wrapped their baby in a blanket and put some extra clothes on their older boy to keep him warm. It was way past their four year old’s bedtime. They sat on the ground and he dozed off next to them. Tariq texted Jake who told him someone would be coming to fetch them shortly and take them to the plane. But the hours rolled by and no one came. Around three o’clock in the morning, Tariq realized they would have to walk. Jake sent Tariq the coordinates to meet a Marine contact who would help get the whole group into a cargo plane. He also sent a photo of himself in his full dress uniform, so Tariq could show it as proof of their connection. It would take close to an hour to get there on foot. Now it was up to Tariq to convince the weary group to follow him.
So I told them like, “We need to get to this point. I don’t think people are going to come here,” but some people were not happy. They just wanted to stay, stay there. And they were kind of like two different teams there.
Some in the group were worried about leaving their position and missing their chance to get on a plane. But Tariq’s confidence in Jake encouraged them. They agreed to stick together and they followed him to the new location.
There was a Marine on the tower and he started shouting like, “Stop.”
The soldiers weren’t expecting them. They were surprised to see such a big group. There were Afghan forces there too.
They also came there and they start getting as like, “Why you are here?” And then on the other side of the fence, I tried to communicate with the US Marine. I showed him Jake’s picture and I called Jake as well.
Tariq handed his phone to the Marine through the fence, so he could talk to Jake.
When they first came upon US troops and Afghan army, it was a hostile interaction. And so, being able to jump on the phone, and identify myself and my background was somewhat useful.
He’d been glued to his phone all night, checking in with Tariq and his Marine contact standing by, ready to mediate however he could.
It was kind of a sort of pretty nerve-wracking I guess, 12 or 13 hours. My number one worry actually was during that period that there would be mistaken identity, and somebody might get shot thinking that these were Taliban approaching an internal gate or something like that.
Tariq waited for a few moments as the Marine conferred with his commanding officer. Finally, the Marines let the group through the gate, nearly 12 hours after they’d arrived at the airport.
They told us, “Okay, since you guys have spent the whole night here, we will let you guys inside.” They did our body search and we got onto the bus and they took us to the evacuation point.
Finally, that afternoon, they lined up to board a cargo plane bound for Qatar. Luckily, Tariq and his wife found two seats inside. She held their baby in a carrier, their toddler sat on his father’s lap. The plane had no air conditioning and was packed. Tariq guessed maybe 800 people, or even more. Hundreds of passengers crammed into the center aisle, sitting on the floor. Sweat dripped down their faces and darkened their clothes. Tariq texted Jake from the runway, “You are the real hero. You saved us all.” “It was easy. Just calls and texting.” He wrote back, “You are doing the hard part.” As the plane took off, Tariq watched his Homeland disappear below him, his parents, his brother, and his in-laws all had stayed behind. He had no idea when he would see them again.
It was a mixed kind of feeling like both emotional, and happiness, and emotional and both together, because what we have left behind and where we are going.
August 25th, Kabul Airport, Abdul and his family arrived at the north gate of the airport, close to midnight. Afghan special forces stood guard in their uniforms, checking people’s documents. The gates were blocked with concertina wire, it was total chaos.
There were again like 10,000 peoples, you know, 1000 at once, running towards the local guards, trying to enter Kabul border. The reaction of the guards were like opening fire in the air with all kind of machine guns they had.
Abdul’s family was already exhausted. They’d spent most of the day trying to get into the airport and now there was constant noise and no place to sleep.
At one point, my daughter, who is 12 years old, she start crying loudly. “I can’t tolerate it in here, I’m scared of this firing all that time.” I says, “You have to, we have no other choice.”
Abdul and his cousin brought their wives and children to a nearby gas station and told them to stay there. Then they approached the Afghan Special Forces and tried to talk their way in.
Phil was constantly in contact with me when he says, “Tell them who you are, where you were, and they might listen to you.”
Abdul told him that he’d been an interpreter for the CIA and what unit he’d worked with. The man nodded.
And so he says, “When did you quit your job?” Now, look, I told him that I quit a few years ago. He says, “No, I’m not allowed to take you inside because you quit the job a few years ago.” And Phil was telling me, “You know how these tactics works; you just make friends with them.” And I said, “Sir, this is not the time that I can start making friendships with people. Nobody listens to what you are talking about.”
Abdul and his family huddled together and waited out the night. He’d been trying to keep together for his kids, but by this point, he was miserable.
There was also so much pessimistic, hopeless, sometimes tired, you know sleepy.
Abdul kept texting with Phil the whole night. Finally, just before sunrise on the 26th of August, Phil had some good news; he’d managed to find a contact at the airport, a young man who worked in logistics. He had agreed to process the documents for Abdul, his cousin, and their respective families, and take them to a plane.
“You guys don’t move anywhere until I tells you. You have to stay here and I have send your documents, like your passport and your name to someone at Kabul Airport and he will be coming out to pick you up.”
Here’s Phil again.
By the grace of God. I mean, this young guy on the base at the airfield without asking anyone for permission, without having, I don’t know, the authority to do this. He was a close friend of a former colleague of mine. And there were others in the same way, young Marines, other US State Department officers, agency officers, soldiers, contractors. I don’t know if they were asking anyone for permission and I didn’t care, all I knew is that they were willing to walk outside the gate, grab the family that had been anointed, and bring them to the safety of that airport.
I told my family that this is the last chance. If we make it, we make it. Otherwise, no other chance is waiting for us.
At 7:30 a.m., Abdul’s phone rang. The young man who worked in logistics told Abdul to come through the crowd and meet him.
So I went forward, I crossed the barbed wire, and he asked me for my passport and for my name, telephone number, and everything. And he was a very kind person, very polite.
The man asked who else Abdul was traveling with.
So he said, “Bring them all.”
With just 20 minutes to spare, they boarded a flight to Kuwait. Eight hours later, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt at Abbey Gate.
Breaking news near the Kabul Airport.
There has been a large explosion at the airport and there are reports of gunfire.
Chaos and carnage.
The bomb went off just outside the airport’s Abbey Gate.
Witnesses say a suicide bomber walked straight toward the entrance gate before blowing himself up.
Just before 6:00 p.m. on August the 26th, only a few days before the final evacuation flight, a bomb exploded near the packed entrance at Abbey Gate. The blast ripped through the crowd, causing a panicked stampe. The Taliban fired into the air trying to disperse people. Afghans who’d had their hopes pinned on getting a flight out of Kabul were now searching for the wounded and carrying them to ambulances outside. At least 170 Afghan civilians and 13 members of the United States military were killed and many more were injured. The Afghan affiliate of ISIS, known as ISIS-K, said they had detonated the bomb.
Ben Owen is the founder of an organization called Flanders Fields, which supports veterans. The group pivoted to evacuating Afghans after seeing how ill prepared the U.S. government was to provide this kind of help. When the bomb went off, he was in the middle of a video call with one of the families he was assisting.
Ben Owen (18:27):
One of my families that NPR dubbed the stars and stripes family because they’re still dressing, at this point in time, it was a 30 day old baby in American flag clothes. They ended up at Abbey Gate and they were not supposed to be at Abbey Gate.
Ben had heard rumors about a potential attack on the airport they were circulating on the WhatsApp groups. As soon as he realized the family were making their way to Abbey Gate, he called them.
Ben Owen (18:56):
I was like, “You need to leave the gate.” And he was like, “No, no, it’s fine. We’re going to get in. We’re going to get in.” And so he FaceTimed me. It was three seconds after I saw his face the blast happened.
The man Ben was talking to dropped his phone. The camera flipped from the sky to the ground and back again. Through the receiver, Ben had screams, gunfire, and dizzying chaos.
Ben Owen (19:18):
Immediately, I started panicking because they got seven kids and one’s a 30 day old baby. It took a couple minutes for him to get his phone picked back up and account for all his kids.
Everyone in their group was okay, but around them it was mayhem. Just a heads up, this next bit of Ben’s interview is especially upsetting and discusses graphic scenes of violence. If you need to, skip ahead 30 seconds.
Ben Owen (19:47):
He flipped the camera around and it was just bodies everywhere, body parts. There were kids picking up dad’s leg because that’s all they could find. It was bad, bad, bad, bad. The women were all sobbing. I mean, it was screaming, running, blood everywhere. It was just pure chaos.
The horrifying scenes from Abbey Gate became world news in a matter of minutes. Fatima, the New York Times journalist you met in episode three, had escaped a few days earlier and was now in Mexico City. She immediately thought of the kind Marine who tried to help her when her family needed water.
When I hear about the attack at the airport in Kabul, his face was the first thing that popped up in my mind.
She sent out a Tweet to ask if anyone knew his name, whether he’d survived the blast. But she never managed to find out for sure. She still hopes that one day she’d be able to tell him how much his kindness meant to her.
I was going crazy. I knew that so many people were killed, but for some reason, I wanted to find out if he’s okay. I wish he’s okay.
Before the Abbey Gate explosion, Afghans had received mixed messages about whether it was safe to go to the airport that day. The day before, in response to warnings of a potential terrorist attack, the U.K.’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office updated its guidance advising against all travel to Kabul Airport. But the British Embassy was still encouraging Afghans to make their way to Abbey Gate. To many involved in the evacuation efforts, the bombing wasn’t a surprise. Warnings of an attack had also been circulating on WhatsApp. Outside of the official channels, civilians and former military volunteers were rushing to get their people out. Mary Bell is the co-founder of an organization called Team Themis, which provides support to vulnerable Afghans with a focus on women and children. On the morning of the Abbey Gate attack, Mary was in Virginia, but she was in touch with a group of highly trained Afghan women who had worked alongside the international soldiers.
Mary Bell (22:11):
There was a group of six of them, one of which had a newborn baby, and they had been trying to get in different gates for 48 hours. Had not slept. Had not eaten. The babies were crying. The babies were exhausted. They had been bludgeoned by the backs of machine guns. They had been threatened. They had weapons fired in their direction when they tried to make it towards gates.
Mary called a Marine who agreed to help the women get in. They were supposed to meet at Abbey Gate, but the Marine was having trouble spotting them in the crowd. Over WhatsApp, Mary frantically tried to help them find each other in the crush of people. Children were being trampled. Women were being assaulted.
Mary Bell (22:52):
Finally, the Marine says, “I think I see them. They’re a solid 1,000 plus feet from me and there is a throng of people between them and this gate.” And he said, “Well, there is black water in front of them. I need them to get in the black water. It’s the poop water that’s in a vat in between the airports and the road and I need them to get in that water and I need them to run. Things are getting really bad outside this gate. If they don’t run, I can’t get them.” And so these women had to get into water that was about yay deep of feces and everything else, people who had been peeing and pooping while the airport was all backed up, and make a run for this Marine.
Mary waited. A minute passed, then two, then three. Her whole body was tense.
Mary Bell (23:39):
And then I got a text that says, “I’ve got them.”
Then a fireball erupted in front of Abbey Gate.
Mary Bell (23:51):
Comms were down with my Marine, comms were down with my group of women, and all we heard was explosion, explosion, explosion.
Mary texted her contacts, but no one was replying.
Mary Bell (24:03):
I was so worried I had killed a fellow service member. And granted, he was doing what he wanted to do, and he was serving his country. But I was so concerned that we had not just lost his life. We had lost the life of these women. And thankfully, about 30 minutes later, he texted me and let me know they had made it in the gates, and the gate had closed seconds before the bomb went off.
Mary lost track of that group of women after they left Afghanistan, but she managed to get in touch with the Marine about a month later.
Mary Bell (24:33):
“Sir, I’m so glad you’re okay, and I really hope you’re home.” And he was like, “Yes, ma’am, home safe and sound.” And I would never forget his courage, and I’ll never forget the courage of the women who had to do the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had to tell anybody to do to gain their freedom and to have a new chance at life.
After the Abbey Gate bombing, it became almost impossible for Afghans to escape. Airlines and countries that had agreed to host refugees stepped up their security. President Biden warned that more ISIS-K attacks could be on the way, but he stood by the August 31st deadline for all troops to withdraw from Kabul, which would end the evacuations. It was a huge blow for the humanitarian organizations, former US military officers, and journalists who had been working around the clock to help Afghans get out. Afghans were now all but trapped in the country.
Mohammad and Taara, a young couple in Kabul, could feel their window closing. They got married just two weeks before the city fell in a big, beautiful ceremony in one of the city’s wedding halls. But now instead of settling into their new life, they were planning an evacuation. Taara isn’t her real name. They asked us to use a pseudonym to protect her identity. Taara was born in Afghanistan and moved to the US as a teenager with her family. Mohammad grew up in Kabul. They’re cousins, but in Afghanistan, marrying a cousin is common. Over time and across the distance, they grew close.
We loved each other. We were talking to each other for years.
He’s so smart. He knows everything. He just don’t show it to people, but he knows everything. He’s always … Whenever I need him, he’s there for me and never let me down in anything.
According to tradition, Mohammad’s parents approached Taara’s parents to ask for her hand. He was 26, and she was 19.
And when we proposed, they accepted.
Mohammad and Taara were over the moon. They began planning their wedding. She and her family traveled to Afghanistan for the ceremony. In their wedding photos, Taara poses in a white dress with long lacy sleeves and holds a bouquet of red roses. Her brown hair is swept back with tendrils spilling across her face. Mohammad stands next to her in a crisp white shirt and a dark vest with gold buttons. They’re both beaming, clearly giddy about starting the rest of their lives together.
But almost immediately, their joy turned to fear when the Taliban took over. What would they do now? Where would they live? They’ve been planning to return to the US or to stay in Kabul if Mohammad couldn’t get a visa.
My wife and my wife’s family, all of them had green cards.
Taara and her family were confident they would get onto a plane bound for the United States, but what about her new husband? Mohammad had been volunteering with Flanders Fields, the organization Ben Owen founded. Mohammad had been helping to deliver aid to Afghans in hiding, including police officers, but now he was the one who needed help. Ben reached out to his network.
Ben Owen (28:18):
I made contact with a ground team who was willing to pull them because of the American passports, and it was about that point in time I realized that Mohammad had nothing. The rest of the family was either American citizens or had green cards, already had US social security numbers, and Mohammad had nothing except an Afghan marriage certificate that hadn’t even been translated to English yet. It started dawning on me, there was not really much of a chance that we were going to be able to get Mohammad out.
Mohammad knew this, but he tried to stay positive around his wife. He needed to make sure she would get on the plane and back to safety in the US. The last thing he wanted was for her to stay in Kabul just because of him.
We tried to change our flight time to get back home early. But we went there, and they said, “No, we can’t change the time because the flights are full.” And we were upset about it. We tried a lot of things, and nothing worked.
They’d run into the same problems everyone faced at the airport, the crowds, the heat, the danger, but on August 26th, they finally had their chance. Ben instructed them to head to Kabul airport. Mohammad and Taara approached the Marines at the gate, pulled out their documents, held their breath, and prayed. In our next episode of Kabul Falling …
I call to everyone that I know to please help me. If Taliban understand that I am a cyclist girl, they will kill me.
This is a big desert. There is no one. They will just take all our 42 people. They will kill us. Then they will bury us in the desert, and no one will understand what happened to us.
We want to hear from you. Please get in touch via our website, kabulfalling.com, or you can send a voice message or tweet using hashtag #kabulfalling. We’ll share some of the best responses during the course of the show. Also, to support the women of Kandahar Treasure, you can buy one of their hand-embroidered scarves on our website. 100% of the proceeds will go to this women-owned collective in Afghanistan.
Kabul Falling is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX. It’s hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, are executive producers. Sandy Smallens is the executive producer for Audiation. Our managing producer is Lucy Woods and Ireland Meacham is the producer. Susie Armitage is our co-producer and story editor. And Siddhartha Mahanta is our consulting producer. Our associate producers are Dan Xin Huang, Fatima Faizi, Francesca Gilardi-Quadrio-Curzio, and Neha Wadekar. Additional reporting was done by Nigel Walker. Our translators are Hasan Azimi and [ ]. Arson Fahim composed the original theme music. Sound design, musical scoring, and mixing by Brad Stratton. Cover design by Ryan Ho and Jane Zisman. Embroidery by Women of Kandahar Treasure. Additional audio and video by Nicholas Brennan, Megan Dean, and KK, with special thanks to Clayton Swisher. For more information on the people featured in this podcast and additional interviews, visit kabulfalling.com. Audiation.